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  • Writer's pictureTravis Jordan

How to Effectively Work with SMEs

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

Author: Travis Jordan

First off, what is a SME? No, it is not Captain Hook's trusted assistant in Peter Pan! SME is an acronym that stands for a "Subject Matter Expert". The SME plays a critical role in the instructional design process as they are often times the domain expert and the provider of the content in your course. This article provides practical tips and tricks to effectively work with subject matter experts to gather, organize, and deliver effective learning content.

Role of the SME vs Instructional Designer

As an instructional designer, you may be asked to create a course on a variety of topics including neurophysics, business law, financial operations, marketing processes, corporate procedures, and more. In most cases, the instructional designer is not the domain expert of the content. Just because you know something does not mean that you can effectively teach something!

The instructional designer is the architect and curator of the course, not necessarily the knowledge expert. As a result, you will need to rely heavily on SMEs and their knowledge to create effective courses.

Inversely, remember that SMEs are not instructional designers nor are they always effective instructors. This is where you come into play. As an instructional designer your role is to gather, organize, and deliver content from the SME to your learners in a manner that elicits performance outcomes.

Role of SME, Subject Matter Experts, SME

Image: Role of Subject Matter Expert

5 Tips for Working with SMEs Below are five practical tips to help you get started working with subject matter experts:

#1: Be Prepared Do your homework! After scheduling an in person (or Zoom) interview with your SME, gather as much information you can about the subject matter. Feel free to reach out to the SME before-hand and ask for resources to review. This will impress your SME and help build that relationship of trust. Organize your notes before the interview and be sure to document a specific list of questions. When you show up ready, you not only save some time, but you send the message that you respect and value your SME’s time. This helps start things off on the right foot!

#2: Record Your Interview

During the interview with your SME, you will need to take notes. However, if you are hyper-focused on note taking you may not listen to your SME. For this purpose, we recommend that you record your interview with the permission of your SME. You can record this with a mic or phone which may feel less intrusive. After the interview, you can re-listen to the recorded interview. This will allow you to catch things that you might have missed initially.

#3: Ask Good Questions

At the beginning of your interview, take a few minutes to build a relationship with your SME before diving into your prepared questions. By opening up the conversation and getting to know them, this will help your SME feel more relaxed and transparent. Building a solid relationship of trust early should be a top priority. Now you are ready to dive into your prepared questions. Below are some good example questions. Remember to ask open-ended questions, help the SME to stay focused, and ask them to clarify if needed.

  1. What is your overall message?

  2. Who is the target audience?

  3. What are the most important things that you want learners to be able to know, feel, and do after taking this course?

  4. Please describe the following task or process?

  5. Tell me what good performance looks like?

  6. Tell me what poor performance looks like?

  7. Why would the learner need or want to learn x?

  8. What existing resources already exist on this topic?

Lastly, as you interview, remember to listen more than you speak. When you do speak be sure to use language that the SME understands. For example, you may want to steer clear of industry-specific jargon and acronyms such as: LMS, LRS, SCORM, SME, learning objectives, chunking, micro-learning, activation, integration, real-world problems, etc. Using these types of terms will create confusion and turn off your SME.

#4: Show Respect

Most subject matter experts are very busy and it is important to respect their time and use it wisely. Be on time and efficient with your interview. Your interview should be no longer than 30-45 minutes. If you need more time, ask if you can send follow up questions via email. Be flexible and work around their schedules, not the inverse. Additionally, don't ask the SME to perform administrative work such as gather and researching content. This should be done by you or someone on your team.

After the interview, send your SME an email thanking for them for their contributions and time. This is important!

#5: Share Results

Many subject matter experts are data-driven; as a result it is always a great idea to share metrics from your course with them. This will help them feel invested into the success of the course. This will also encourage future collaboration. Below are a few course evaluation metrics that you might consider sharing:

  • # of course enrollments

  • # of course completions

  • Average % of exam scores

  • Quantitative feedback from learners

You can reiterate to your SME how their contribution will impact the course results.

Working with SMEs is both an art and a science, and not always intuitive. Hopefully you have taken away a few tips to help you become an effective SME collaborator!


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